Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s a rule most of us learn as children: Keep your hands to yourself. And yet it seems that scores of men can’t quite follow it, even — perhaps especially? — when the whole world is watching.
The latest grabby guy is Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) President Luis Rubiales, who gripped Spanish football player Jennifer Hermoso’s head during the team’s trophy ceremony and planted a kiss on her lips. Rubiales was, like everyone else at the ceremony, no doubt excited that the Spanish team had won the World Cup. But he’s the only one who used that moment to publicly violate a player.
After the kiss, as the team gathered in the locker room, Rubiales threw his arm around Hermoso, announced a trip to Ibiza, and said, “There, we will celebrate the wedding of Jenni and Luis Rubiales.” Additional video footage appears to show coach Jorge Vilda inappropriately touching a member of his staff, letting his hand hover at her chest as he turns away from a hug. (CNN has reached out for comment from Vilda, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and the woman.)
The responses to the kiss — whether people are critical or quick to shrug it off — tell us everything about how little our world respects the basic right of women to live in the world unmolested and safe in our own skin.
Rubiales has apologized for the kiss, sort of.
“There’s an event, which I have to regret, which is everything that happened between the player and I, with a magnificent relationship between the two of us, the same as with the others,” the RFEF boss said in a video statement.
“And well, I surely made a mistake, I have to recognize that. In a moment of elation, without any intention of bad faith, well, what happened happened — I think in a very spontaneous way. I repeat, there was no bad faith between either of the two of us.”
“Here, we didn’t understand it because we saw something natural, normal and in no way, I repeat, with bad faith. But outside of the bubble, it looks like it has turned into a storm and so, if there are people who have felt offended, I have to say I’m sorry.”
Hermoso, for her part, said she “didn’t like it” but asked, “What am I supposed to do?” Later, she told a radio show that she “didn’t expect it” but that “it was because of the emotion of the moment, there’s nothing more there. It’s just going to be an anecdote [of the time]. I’m absolutely sure it won’t be blown up more.”
You can’t blame Hermoso for wanting this story to go away, because there’s simply no good public position for her to take. Say she didn’t want to be forcibly kissed on the lips by a man who is, for all intents and purposes, her boss, and she’s a whiner or a bad sport. Say it was fine and she’s a bad feminist, letting other women down by justifying bad male behavior (and, perhaps, lying).
But Hermoso isn’t the first woman to be grabbed and kissed without her consent by a man seeking to publicly signal his elation by using a random woman as his prop. From the famous image of the home-from-World-War-II sailor kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square to actor Adrien Brody wrapping his arms around Halle Berry and tipping her into a kiss after his Best Actor Oscar win in 2003, there’s a long history of men using very public moments to grab and kiss women who have expressed no desire to kiss them.
When pressed, many of these men say some version of “I was just caught up in the moment,” casting the kisses, as Rubiales did, as “spontaneous.” Oddly, though, caught-up-in-the-moment men don’t tend to spontaneously grab and kiss other men. It’s almost like there’s a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, and an expectation that women will tolerate shocking encroachments on their personal space, that doesn’t apply to men.
In case there is any doubt: Most women, like most people, do not enjoy having a kiss forced on their mouths. Most women, like most people, enjoy kissing romantic partners and sometimes children or other loved ones, but do not appreciate an unwanted head centimeters from theirs, unwanted breath hot on their face, unwanted lips smashing into theirs. It’s a violation. It’s gross. It’s appalling whether it happens in private, or in full view of TV cameras.
In 2005, Greta Friedman, the nurse who was forcibly kissed by a sailor in Times Square, told an interviewer, “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed.” The sailor, she said, “just came over and grabbed!” The moment wasn’t a romantic one; as it happened she was thinking, “I hope I can breathe,” she said. “I mean somebody much bigger than you and much stronger, where you’ve lost control of yourself, I’m not sure that makes you happy.”
As historians have noted, that famous kiss, re-written for decades as romantic or jubilant, was part of a multi-city postwar spree of sexual assaults and rapes at the hands of returning men. Men attacked women and girls, sometimes kissing them against their will, other times groping them, stripping off their clothes, beating up their male companions and, according to several reports, raping them.
After Berry was forcibly kissed on camera by Brody, she told an interviewer that all she was thinking was, “What the f— is going on right now?” When asked if he regretted his actions, Brody told an interviewer in 2017: “There was a lot of love it that room, real love and recognition. It was just a good moment and…I took it.”
The reactions such as those described by Friedman and Berry are common ones: When sexually assaulted or confronted with unwanted touching, many women freeze up rather than fight back.
Rubiales’ kiss also tops off a mountain of allegations about sexism-tinged bad behavior in the RFEF. Vilda’s treatment of the team was so allegedly abhorrent that 15 players said they wouldn’t step onto the pitch with the national team until their concerns were addressed; three additional players, including Hermoso, signaled their support for the boycotting members. And yet, when the Spanish women won the World Cup thanks to their own skill and hard work, Rubiales still emphasized Vilda.
“I think that we have to give all of the merit to these women, to the team led by Jorge Vilda and we have to celebrate it to the skies as much as we can,” he said.
And yet, instead of giving the Spanish women their moment, Rubiales made it about him by objectifying Hermoso, treating her like a prop that could be used to show his enthusiasm and signal his virility. Because that, too, is the message: that, when men are too excited, they simply can’t help but act out this way. This wrongheaded rationalizing not only puts women in a position of vulnerability, but also excuses men from taking responsibility for the full import of their actions.
For far too long, too many men have seen women’s bodies as public property, as sexualized things to ogle, comment on or touch, as if we exist in the world for their perusal, assessment and pleasure. Too often, women are treated as accoutrements to men’s lives, supporting characters in their narratives, or objects through men can express their emotions and onto which they can lay their baggage.
This, too many people say, is just men being men, or a simple display of normal human emotion. But it’s not. Many men who treat women poorly seem fully capable of treating men with respect, and of keeping their hands and lips and genitals to themselves when they’re around other men who have expressed no interest in sexualized physical contact. It’s when those men are around women that the grabbing and kissing and sometimes more seems to happen.
I don’t know what the right penalty for Rubiales should be. But I do know that actions like his are about much more than just a kiss.
Correction: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly described an incident involving touching a member of Spain’s soccer staff; the person in the footage was Jorge Vilda, not Luis Rubiales.